The Need for a Chief Product Officer is Early Stage Materials Startups

This article discusses an often overlooked but critical role for any advanced materials startups

When people think of company leadership, they think of titles like CEO, CTO, CFO, or COO. Many leaders work to fill these roles quickly in an effort to complete their “leadership team.” These titles reflect a need to divide focus within an organization. No one person can do everything. The needs of a pre-revenue advanced materials startup, however, are a little simpler. They need to get to revenue as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. So, there really are only three priorities for an early-stage advanced materials startup:

  1. Fundraising
  2. Technology scale-up
  3. Development of a sellable product

Fundraising is first, without money the whole engine stops moving. The role of fundraising is typically that of the CEO, supported (in-part) by the CFO. Technology scale-up is a combination of roles between the CTO and COO. The CTO is running the technology team, analysis, and testing. The COO is more focused reducing process variability and ensuring realization of maximum capacity. Now, who is focused on developing a sellable product? Often this also falls under the CTO or is split between the CTO and a founder-CEO. Because of this dynamic, their attention is often divided. Two part-time roles does not equal the effectively of a full-time person. Also, in the fast-paced, dynamic environment of a startup, rarely do people have time to get to their second priority items.

Development of a sellable product extends beyond technology scale-up. It requires an external focus on customer needs and market standards. All too often this role slips through the cracks of an advanced materials startup. Either explicitly stated of inferred, the team assumes; “if we nail the technology the customers will buy it.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Developing a complete product extends beyond just production. Setting that complete product vision early is essential for long-term success.

As such, advanced material startups would benefit from having a Chief Product officer, or CPO. The CPO is a role many software companies are adopting. They are focused on translating a technology into a product. The CPO usually reports to the CEO and is often a peer to the CTO. The CPO is focused on pulling customer insights into the room when key decisions are being made about the technology. In a larger company, The CPO would manage the product managers; in a startup they are defining what a good looks like. Early on, they will be setting clear specification for performance, product packaging requirements, and the customer usage experience. CPOs are particularly valuable where “trade-off” decisions are being made or if it is worth continued work on a non-critical material property. CPOs will serve as the voice of the customer.

One example is Inpria, a new Tin Oxide photoresist company building momentum in Oregon. Inpria’s technology delivers 10x improvement in etch-selectivity at less than 10nm feature size. It is an impressive technology, but what does their product look like? A CPO would map out cartridge types, volumes, storage needs, operator handling instructions, and application recipes. Also, the photoresist characteristics drive upstream exposure times, and down-stream process steps like etch times, mixtures, and other conditions. Inpria will be selling more than just photoresist in a cup. Their complete product will integrate the customer user experience from cradle to grave.

Some would argue that the CTO should do the job of the CPO. While conceptually I agree, I have found that the CTO is internally focused in an advanced materials startup. And for good reason. They are busy managing a lab of researchers, figuring out scale-up, and improving quality. The CTO doesn’t have time to be externally facing, and (in my experience) rarely do they have interest in it. I would even argue that the CPO-CTO combination is more powerful. You have two counterparts that are working on the same problem, towards the same goal, but balancing each other out between internal capabilities and external needs.


Balancing the CTO with a CPO gives both internal and external focus to the company

Also, the CPO is not the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). The CMO is focused on channel development and articulating the value of your product. They are focused on differentiators and large-scale outreach. I see a CMO as an important role later in a company’s development. CMOs help with exponential growth of sales and customer engagement. CMO’s market the thing that the CPO has productized.

With that, finding the right person in the role is extremely important and difficult. There are a number of good articles (here and here) on what skills are needed to be successful in the job. I think that skills like working with others and the focus on execution are the most important. Beyond these higher-level skills, I think it is helpful to define their role in an early stage organization. Below are some bullets that develop the function of a CPO in an early stage advanced materials startup:

To properly guide the research and development team, the CPO needs to:

  • Serve as the voice of the customer
  • Develop relationships with customers, thought leaders, and early adopters
  • Translate customer needs into directives (specifications) for the CTO
  • Deliver a clear product vision and roadmap
  • Organize the go-to market strategy
  • Navigate the market supply chain

Some of you will realize that the CPO blends marketing, business development, and technology. This is true, and you can accomplish the same vision with a team of three to five people. But Materials startups don’t have the resources and you have to prioritize focus. The early phases of a startup need to focus on the product: CPO drive that focus with one person.

Payoff for a Startup

So, what does a CPO do for a starving startup that has limited resources? Most advanced materials startups have a CTO, CEO, and a technology team. Some may have a part-time CFO and a strong advisory board. Within this type of team, no one is putting together a customer-based vision of what the end product looks like. The CTO is focused on the next months worth of experiments, the CEO is busy fund raising. Putting clear parameters around what good looks like does two things; reduces waste and drives focus. A good CPO will define clear metrics for success. This puts a yard-stick to technology team results. So many material startups say we are trying to “increase X” or “reduce Y.” Well, how much of an improvement in X or reduction in Y do we need? What if we have to give up performance in Z to get there? Who can say the cost or value of that tradeoff? Answering these questions stops wasting time on non-value add activities and focuses the team. An aspirational product vision drives decision-making, facilitates fundraising, and accelerates the company towards successful commercialization. Reducing waste and driving focus work together to increase likelihood of success.

The Interim CPO

In some cases you can plan for the CPO to be a temporary role during the first few years of the company. This is common if a company just needs the focus for the first product. The person that serves as CPO does not go away, they can easily transition to a CBO or CMO role to focus on business development or marketing, respectively. That transition depends on the person’s strengths, interest, and the company needs. Personally, I think that every technology-enabled company should keep a product focus indefinitely. But the organizational structure of a growing company depends on too many factors to discuss here.


Adding a CPO to your leadership team will balance a technology heavy startup and deliver a focus. Adding a voice of the customer to your team will accelerate the organization towards revenue development. Finding a person with the right combination of experience and personality may be difficult, but it will pay-off in spades.


That’s all for now! Thanks for reading!

Thoughts on this article? Please post comments and questions below!

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